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Top 10 Historic Trail Drives

Three hundred years of U.S. history come alive along these ten roadways.

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Utah's Monument Valley is a highlight on the Trail of the Ancients.

From the October 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler and the National Geographic book Drives of a Lifetime

Three hundred years of U.S. history come alive along these ten roadways.

George Washington Memorial Parkway, Virginia
A scenic gateway to Washington, D.C., this short drive begins at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home from 1754 to 1799. It then follows the Virginia shoreline of the wide Potomac River, through beech, maple, and oak woodlands, past wetlands cherished by bird-watchers, to the colonial port of Old Town Alexandria. The parkway runs up to Great Falls National Park. Watch for signs of the seasons: dogwood, redbud, and daffodils in spring; the fiery hues of red maples, oaks, sumacs, and hickories in autumn. You may also see wild turkeys and bald eagles. Planning: Avoid rush hour. The 25-mile route ends at the junction with I-495.

Selma to Montgomery March Byway, Alabama
This drive follows U.S. 80 through a landscape where some of the key events of the American civil rights movement took place. A march from Selma on March 7, 1965, attempting to reach the state capital of Montgomery 54 miles away ended in a brutal police confrontation called “Bloody Sunday.” Martin Luther King, Jr., led another march on March 21; it started with 300 people and ended five days later with 25,000. Various memorials, landmarks, and exhibits line the route, including the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma and the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery where Martin Luther King gave his historic speech. Planning: Allow at least four hours.

Historic Route 66, Illinois
Route 66 was commissioned in 1926 to link Chicago to Los Angeles, a distance of 2,440 miles. It was updated and realigned over the years, but parts of the Historic Route 66 can still be traced. The Illinois segment, the first to be completed, starts on Michigan Avenue in Chicago and heads along I-55, past classic roadside architecture of the 1930s to 1950s all the way to East St. Louis on the Mississippi. Planning: Allow two to three days. Best in spring through fall. An alternative route after Springfield follows Illinois 4.

Billy the Kid Trail, New Mexico
A mountainous loop leading from Ruidoso visits sites of the Wild West associated with gunfighter Billy the Kid. The Byway Interpretive Center and the Hubbard Museum of the American West provide background. At the Lincoln State Monument, see the courthouse where, in 1881, Billy the Kid awaited hanging before his daring escape. He died in a gunfight at Fort Sumner. Planning: Allow at least three hours for this 84-mile itinerary.

Pioneer Historic Byway, Idaho
Beginning at Franklin, drive across the southeastern corner of Idaho for 127 miles to Freedom. Part of the way the route follows the Oregon Trail along the Bear River. Conflict with the Shoshone led to the Bear River Massacre of 1863 near Preston. A detour leads to the ghost town of Chesterfield, an early Mormon settlement. Planning: Allow at least half a day for this route.

San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway, California
Starting at the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded in 1772, head north through spectacular coastal scenery, taking in missions, railroad museums, and Hearst Castle, the palatial mansion of William Randolph Hearst, near San Simeon. The drive ends at the Monterey County Line, just south of Big Sur. Planning: The 57-mile route follows Highway 1.

Hallowed Ground, Pennsylvania/Maryland/Virginia
This tour, starting in Gettysburg, embraces an unmatched concentration of Civil War history. “Hallowed Ground” refers to President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the drive takes in key battlefield sites including Antietam and Manassas, and passes Eisenhower National Historic Site and the homes of Presidents James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Planning: This 180-mile route is best from spring through fall.

Washington Heritage Trail, West Virginia
A loop of 136 miles in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia visits scenes from George Washington’s life. It begins at Harpers Ferry, the site of John Brown’s raid in 1859, then passes Shepherdstown, Martinsburg, the old spa center of Berkeley Springs, and the Cacapon Resort State Park. Another stop, Charles Town, was laid out in 1786 by Washington’s brother, Charles. Planning: Go from spring through fall.

Wilderness Road Heritage Highway, Kentucky
Pioneer and folk hero Daniel Boone blazed the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap to settle Kentucky in the late 18th century. Start at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and visitor center, near Middlesboro, then head north to Berea, known as the Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky. Planning: Allow two days to visit all the attractions along this 94-mile route.

Trail of the Ancients, Colorado/Utah
A double-loop route straddling the Four Corners takes in a region inhabited since ancient times by Native American peoples and passes through dramatic sculptural landscapes of bare, eroded rock. Covering 480 miles, it starts at Cortez and Mesa Verde National Park, and includes Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and the Anasazi Heritage Center. Planning: Allow five days for this drive.

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